This week was a visit to the De Young Museum in San Francisco to see (among other works of art) photographs of Iraqi daily life during the US-led allied invasion of 2003, especially the photographs of that conflict’s impact on children. These moving and disturbing images remind us that war and deprivation wreak havoc on children around the world. Our neighborhoods seem so ideal by comparison.
We want to be mindful of our privilege, and thankful, knowing that there are horrors in the world that we are not required to face. And we also look for ways to align our family resources with works of justice and relief for those who suffer.
Yet we think that one of the best contributions we can make to the world is raising children to make it better. And the best way to do that, is to give the children in our care every advantage, so that they enter the world with love to spare.
The people who study development in young children admit that we don’t yet know the effect of video screens on the brains of the very young. However, we hear a common warning from these same camps: children under the age of three should not be pacified with video screens. This includes phones, tablets, computers, and TVs. Ok, we know: this is hard. Recommendations for the later years vary, but some say that an hour a day should be the max for kids up to age nine.
If we don’t yet know what effect a video screen has on a young brain, we do know that what young children need is physical human interaction and engagement, balanced with times of quiescence. Quiescence is unstimulated inactivity, and is the soil out of which grows creative and imaginative play. No matter how interactive an app is, there is a serious limit to how creative you can be within the fixed boundaries of a glass screen.
Any repetitive stimulation effects brain wiring. That is, you train a brain to depend on a source of stimulation. Too much exposure to limitless visual excess can wire a child to expect instant gratification (and not just of a visual nature) and become intolerant of any environment where they cannot have what they want when they want it.
(Image from eBay user l8ouise, who will sell you an iPad mount for your baby’s car seat … if you are determined to do your own research on these matters.)
There is a moment repeated hundreds of times in the first months of life, each a connection between mother and child, each one a building block adding up to a child’s sense of self. This is attachment. Attachment is an infant’s emotional connection with their principal caretaker that is the basis for the capacity to love and live together. It’s essential.
In the middle of last century, a psychologist named John Bowlby proposed the theory that attachment is not a way to get other essential needs met: attachment is a need all its own. Infants need to eat, we know this: an early view of attachment was that bonding with mother ensured survival by making sure a child was fed and cared for. Bowlby’s insight was that an infant may be fed and cared for by anyone, no attachment required. Children who left London during the bombing raids of WWII were fed and cared for by extended family members in the countryside, but often became severely depressed and unwell. Babies raised in orphanages who are fed and have their basic needs met may nevertheless fail to thrive and sometimes simply perish for lack of meaningful attachment to a caretaker. The need for attachment is as essential to survival as food.
Why is attachment so essential? Althea Horner, in her way-cool book, Being and Loving, notes five questions that need answering in the earliest season of life. The answers to these questions are provided by parents, depend on the nature of the attachment, and become the basis for essential belief systems about the child’s self:
- What am I like? … Am I worthy of love and care?
- What are others like? … Are people for me? Are people caring and safe?
- What are relationships like? … Can relationships be sources of good?
- What do I have to do to be safe? … Is it safe to cry out? Is it safer to be invisible?
- What do I have to do to feel good about myself? … Will soothing come from outside of me, or am I responsible for my own comfort?
Attachment is the process by which we form mental models that remain our primary way of seeing ourselves and others. These early ‘models’ stay with us and influence a lifetime of decision making.
In a class full of twenty-somethings at Santa Clara recently, the teacher referred to a research finding that having children has been shown to reduce marital satisfaction. This sent a chill through the room, among young singles as well as among the older been-theres.
As a father of grown children, I was surprised at the reaction (the young woman next to me turned white). I realized that the class was hearing the suggestion through a filter of fear … every young person has a kind of dread that they will soon lose their freedom and find themselves at the mercy of a little time-vampire in footsie pajamas.
But the findings are saying something much simpler. They do not say, or even suggest, that people who have kids are less happy or fulfilled. It says marital satisfaction goes down. No parent would argue against the fact that certain marital pleasures diminish for a season, if only because of the lack of sleep. But most of these would also admit that such pleasures can come back.
More importantly, when we’re talking about children, parents ought to be able to say that other kinds of satisfaction come roaring in like a flood.